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U.N. panel cites Venezuela 'crimes against humanity'

A report to the U.N. Human Rights Council raised allegations of crimes against humanity in Venezuela by President Nicolás Maduro’s administration.

GENEVA (AN) — An international fact-finding mission's report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday raised allegations of crimes against humanity in Venezuela perpetrated by President Nicolás Maduro’s security forces and intelligence agencies.

After a year of investigation, U.N. experts said Venezuela must prosecute extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture — and prevent more such violence.

Maduro’s government has overseen a national economy that has all but collapsed, sending 5 million people fleeing from the country. Venezuelans who cannot leave remain in the grips of a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by severe hyperinflation and a lack of food and basic services.

“The mission found reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan authorities and security forces have since 2014 planned and executed serious human rights violations, some of which — including arbitrary killings and the systematic use of torture — amount to crimes against humanity,” said Marta Valiñas, a Portugese lawyer and human rights expert.

Valiñas, who chairs the three-member U.N. commission, said in a statement these were not isolated acts, but were crimes that were "coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials.” A crime against humanity is defined as a widespread or systematic attack on civilians.

Experts said in a 411-page report that they investigated 223 cases, and reviewed 2,891 others. The report includes 48 case studies, compiling evidence from witnesses, victims, videos, social media and satellite images. The other two panelists are Francisco Cox Vial of Chile and Paul Seils of Britain, both experienced in criminal law, human rights and international organizations.

Maduro's government, its forces and allied groups committed serious abuses and crimes "that were highly coordinated pursuant to state policies, and part of a widespread and systematic course of conduct, thus amounting to crimes against humanity," the panel said.

"President Maduro and the ministers of the interior and of defense were aware of the crimes," it added. "They gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed."

In January 2019, the opposition-majority National Assembly declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election invalid and named the assembly’s president, Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela until credible, free and fair elections could be held. More than 50 nations recognized Guaidó as leader.

But Maduro, with the military's backing, kept his grip. His nation has the world’s biggest proven oil reserves, exported by the government's oil and natural gas company, Petróleos de Venezuela. The United States added Maduro to its economic sanctions several years ago. More than 100 Venezuelan officials and others are on that list and have had their U.S. assets frozen.

ICC jurisdiction

The panel said the Special Action Forces, a national police division, carried out more than half of the thousands of killings, while SEBIN, the national intelligence service, arrested and tortured dissidents and human rights activists for political reasons. It recommended that prosecutors investigate and hold to account more than 45 intelligence and counterintelligence officers.

The prosecutions could occur in the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international criminal court, which has jurisdiction to prosecute people for the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.

The ICC, which is not part of the United Nations system, has 123 member nations — including Venezuela — that accept its jurisdiction because they signed onto the Rome Statute, an international treaty that took effect in July 2002 and underpins the ICC’s authority.

It is meant to serve as a court of last resort when nations are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves. The U.N. Security Council can refer a matter to ICC prosecutors for investigation even in a country that does not recognize its jurisdiction, but that rarely happens.

In February 2018, the ICC announced a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity by Venezuelan authorities.

The U.N.'s top human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, visited the country in June 2019 to meet with Maduro, other senior government officials, and many others, including business people, academics, human rights victims and families.

Bachelet, a former president of Chile who has headed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, since September 2018, said Venezuelan citizens who were "victims of state violence" provided first-hand accounts of their suffering and "their demands for justice."

Then in September 2019, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council voted to create the yearlong, independent fact-finding mission that resulted in Wednesday's report. It was asked to investigate cases of suspected human rights abuses in Venezuela from the previous five years.

More than a dozen Latin American nations supported its creation. The resolution was sponsored by the 14-nation Lima Group, created out of a 2017 Lima Declaration to mediate the Venezuelan crisis. The 47-nation council backed the mission in a 19-7 vote, with 21 nations abstaining.

The panel's report now seems likely to raise pressure on Maduro's government. Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, however, accused the panel of pursuing a hidden agenda. Earlier this year, Maduro's government also had asked the ICC to investigate U.S. officials for alleged crimes against humanity resulting from economic sanctions.

"A report plagued with falsehoods, prepared remotely, without any methodological rigor, by a phantom mission directed against Venezuela and controlled by governments subordinate to Washington," said Arreaza, "illustrates the perverse practice of engaging in human rights politics and not human rights politics."